Taken at face value, Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage is a perfectly satisfying crime movie. The storytelling is terse and efficient, presenting one exciting standoff after another, and there are enough weird jokes and character turns to keep it from getting monotonous. The story itself, about warring yakuza clans familiar from hundreds of other films, is intentionally slim. Yet Kitano approaches the material like an ace jazz musician riffing on an old standard, constructing entire scenes around a funky camera setup, a deadpan punch line, or an ingenious sound cue.

In the context of Kitano’s career, though, the film’s apparent simplicity becomes a complex artistic statement. Outrage arrives after a trilogy of autobiographical comedies about celebrity, filmmaking, and the nature of art: Takeshis’ (2005), Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007), and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008). These films constitute an ambitious self-examination comparable in scope to Philip Roth’s “Zuckerman Bound” novels, and their conclusions—about art in general and Kitano in particular—are no less self-critical than Roth’s (indeed, Kitano described the trilogy as the “creative destruction” of his career). After a project like that, Outrage suggests a clean slate, a chance for Kitano to get away from himself and have some fun.

But is that even possible? The central joke of the autobiographical trilogy is that Kitano can never step outside the shadow of his own celebrity. First rising to fame in the 70s as half of a stand-up comedy duo called the Two Beats (he continues to use his comedy stage name, Beat Takeshi, as his acting credit), Kitano went on to become a successful TV host, action movie star, film director, and painter—in short, a Japanese icon. In contrast to his looming presence in the culture, Kitano’s onscreen persona tends to be modest and unaffected in the Buster Keaton tradition, qualities that extend to his directorial approach as well: he favors minimal dialogue, clean compositions, and linear camera movements. Kitano’s style often has the emotional directness of silent movies, and it’s proven well suited to character comedy (e.g., 1999’s Kikujiro) as well as old-fashioned tragedy (e.g., 1991’s A Scene at the Sea and 1997’s Fireworks, perhaps his finest film).

The contradictory relationship between Kitano the celebrity and Kitano the serious artist makes him oddly reminiscent of both Jerry Lewis and Clint Eastwood, other iconic actors whose directorial work often questions what their iconography represents. And like them, Kitano’s iconography is so bound up in national concepts of masculinity and success that his self-examinations end up interrogating cultural values as well. This may explain why none of the films in the autobiographical trilogy received a major U.S. release: distributors probably assumed Americans would find them too insular and stay away (if you’d like to catch up with them, all three are available for rent at Facets Multimedia and Bucktown’s Odd Obsession). Yet the films aren’t hard to understand, since they’re directed with an irresistible sense of showmanship; even at his most self-regarding, Kitano remains a comedian at heart.

Kitano also recognizes the cost of so much self-examination. Satirizing his public persona one aspect at a time, the trilogy breaks down his identity until there’s little of the “real” Kitano left. Takeshis’ parodies his cultural celebrity through the imagined story of a pathetic double, an aspiring middle-aged actor named Mr. Takeshi who moonlights as a convenience store manager. Glory to the Filmmaker! mocks Kitano’s directorial career through a History of the World-style revue depicting his disastrous attempts to make a movie outside of his familiar style. Kitano stars in each of the movie parodies (which include a mawkish Yasujiro Ozu tribute and a ghost story in the fashion of The Grudge), and his failure to adapt his sad-sack comic persona becomes a hilarious running gag.

Achilles and the Tortoise offers another pathetic Beat Takeshi double, but in a further effacement of his onscreen persona, Kitano doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way into the film. The story (which alludes to Kitano’s own career as a painter) follows an introverted would-be artist from childhood to middle age. The opening scenes have the feel of a Hollywood biopic, with intimations that this ugly duckling protagonist will grow up to enjoy a momentous career. But in a surprising narrative turn, the second half depicts his adulthood as one failure after another: the middle-aged painter never sells a single work, becomes the laughingstock of his town, and loses the respect of his grown daughter. Ironically, the movie becomes more broadly comic as the painter’s failures accumulate, resulting in some of Kitano’s funniest gags. It’s also worth noting that, of the three films in the trilogy, Achilles has the only genuinely happy ending.

That ending, a cathartic scene of reconciliation between the painter and his wife that might be the closest Kitano’s filmmaking has gotten to Chaplin’s, also sums up the “creative destruction” trilogy with a clear-cut moral: making art may be sublime, but happiness in life is what counts. If the dream narrative of Takeshis’ presented celebrity as a hall of mirrors and the blackout gags of Glory to the Filmmaker! presented “serious” self-expression as a succession of dead ends, Achilles‘s graceful landing suggests a blissful rejection of art in favor of everyday life. It’s a satisfying conclusion to Kitano’s grand project, but it raises the question of what he could possibly say next as a filmmaker.

Outrage responds to that question rather craftily: on the surface it seems to be saying nothing at all. Kitano reveals little about the characters’ pasts, and no one seems to have any ambition other than increasing his power within the syndicate. Even on a second viewing, I had trouble keeping track of who was who, although I wouldn’t say the plot was hard to follow. The movie is all theme and variation, with honor-bound conflicts heating up between two tough guys (or crews of tough guys) until violence erupts. Kitano approaches the Grand Guignol deaths and beatings like they were song-and-dance numbers in a musical, as sequences that allow him to enjoy filmmaking for its own sake (in fact, Kitano claims to have planned out the death scenes of Outrage before writing anything else).

This represents a sharp break from Kitano’s last three films, which depicted the crises that arise when art is expected to mean something. Outrage is, above all, entertainment—traditionally regarded as the antithesis of meaningful art—and it’s so consistently suspenseful that it discourages any deep consideration. Yet there’s something liberating about the film’s lightness: it feels like Kitano has finally grown comfortable with his status as an iconic filmmaker, satisfying the demands of a mass audience while expressing himself more subtly, through formal aspects like framing, editing, and tone.

How does Outrage constitute a personal work? For one thing, it continues the theme of self-effacement begun by the creative destruction comedies. Kitano isn’t the star of the movie, but one player among an evenly weighted ensemble. Also, his character, Otomo, is neither a success nor a failure: he’s a midlevel crime boss who commands a few dozen men but still takes orders from superiors. His character may have the most fully realized dramatic arc in the movie—in the second half, he loses his position of authority and takes revenge on both his enemies and his bosses. But he’s no more sympathetic than any of the others.

The favoring of groups over individuals extends to the movie’s visual schemes. Outrage is Kitano’s first film in widescreen, and he uses the expanded frame to arrange the characters in novel configurations (he also finds new variations on one of his favorite setups: the lopsided shot that grants as much space to architecture as it does to people). Likewise, Kitano’s editing keeps Outrage moving fluidly between various conflicts, treating the factions as a source of musical counterpoint rather than presenting them according to some hierarchy of interest. On the whole, the movie feels weirdly harmonious: the developments are consistently linear, with orders from the top leading to the actions taken by the underbosses and then by the thugs. At times, it suggests The Godfather as imagined by Piet Mondrian.

It’s surprising that Kitano should treat the yakuza genre so unironically here—especially when Takeshis’ and Glory to the Filmmaker! practically open with yakuza movie spoofs. In those scenes Kitano, dressed up like his gangster character from Sonatine (1993), guns down rows of nameless bad guys without any apparent effort; they give the unambiguous impression that he simply had grown bored with this kind of material. In addition to mocking Kitano’s most maligned films (namely 2000’s Brother, which did nothing to build on his Sonatine character save for transplanting him to LA), these gags critique the yakuza genre as little more than bloody sensationalism.

Outrage doesn’t contradict that critique so much as qualify it. Bloody sensationalism, it seems to be saying, may be a better canvas for abstract art than so-called personal filmmaking, since it provides a clear-cut set of formal principles for a filmmaker to play with. Once several characters have been eliminated from Outrage, Kitano casually introduces new ones, suggesting he could spin variations on this premise indefinitely. And in fact, he just might: Kitano’s currently working on Outrage 2. This development suggests a continuation of the happy ending of Achilles and the Tortoise, with Kitano the artist joyfully reconciled with the workaday world of his fans.